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Don’t Freak Out

Lesley University’s MFA Program in Writing for Young People

Steven Cramer, the Director of the Creative Writing MFA at Lesley spoke to us during our first semester orientation class in June.

One of the first things he said was, “‘The Work’ should be more fun than fun.”

I’m not sure if I can live up to this, but its definitely what I strive for. I’d say half of the people I know who write love it completely. The other half, who I tend to work more closely with, are the ones for whom writing is a labor and a struggle. It’s not something ‘fun’ but we love it in our own way. The act of creation is a labor; even if it doesn’t feel like it’s one of love sometimes, we keep going.

“We are better critics for others than for ourselves. You are your first and worst critic.”

TRUTH. At this point during the seminar, I doodled a writer throwing their wine glass and manuscript into the fire and watching them burn.

Then we were given terrifying advice on How Not to Waste this Opportunity.

“If a great creative vigor isn’t employed in the attendance of an MFA program someone is cheating themselves.”

On the spectrum of creative people, I am of the type who like to self-sabotage unconsciously. (For the thrill? For the stress? Because creative brains are broken and put back together strangely?) Whatever the reason, I am prone to procrastination, all-nighters, breakdowns, and napping when I have free time rather than writing.

My eyes got big and watery. I was loving the whole experience, getting all these big ideas, but how long would my motivation hang in with me? I wanted to succeed. I worked so hard to be here…

The next thing was, Don’t freak out.”

This program has been running at Lesley University for 11 years. I was not the first person to be this way, and I will not be the last. What followed was a list that seemed tailored to people like me.

  • Don’t freak out
  • Be proactive
  • Work on time management
  • Communication is key: Communicate with your mentors.
  • Be fluid. Bring in raw stuff.
  • You’re not locked into the thing you came in doing in this program. Experiment!
  • Writers have to allow themselves to write badly.
  • Writers have to forbid themselves to settle for anything other than the best they can do.
  • Use this time to delve into your own psychology.
  • There’s a lot of scope for getting it right.

Some seminars were refreshingly full of swearing. It made me feel right at home. These were usually the seminars focused on the task of writing itself; swearing is a part of the process. Ask many classic American authors. Mark Twain was a great fan of swearing.

Advice on Submissions:

  • Some people work every night, only work on the weekends, or pull all-nighters.
  • What are you trying to do? How can your mentor help you get there?
  • Giving up the notion that you already have a voice or style will set you free.
  • Promise is a style in the process of defining itself.
  • Before sending your work to anyone else, ask yourself: Is this the work of a writer who cares about what they’re writing? 

Chris Lynch’s Introduction to Workshopping and Critique:

  • Try to tune into what the writer wants to do rather than what you like to read.
  • Read a lot of good adult writers even if its not your genre/category [ex. writing for children]. Don’t limit yourself.
  • There’s nothing that’s not possible in fiction.

In Laurie Foos’ seminar on “Courting the Muse,” tactics for keeping the creative energy flowing, she said, “I know where you’re going. I know where you’ve been. This is your opportunity to put writing at the center of your life.”

And that was the best thing about the residency: You’re with other people who strove to be here to become better writers. To take their passion and hone it into something.

I always love hearing about other writers’ neuroses and habits and fears and interests and talents. There’s nothing like being in this community.

And I think that is the point of residencies in low-res MFA programs:

You’re not alone.

Don’t freak out.